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Nine People Have The Power To Reduce The World To Pulp

It's a cool setup for a Tarantino film but a diabolical way to maintain an international order.

06/07/2017 10:50 AM AEST | Updated 06/07/2017 10:50 AM AEST
Lucas Jackson / Reuters
"Spoiler alert: Someone always flinches."

Visualise, if you will, the endgame from basically any Tarantino film ever: a room full of hard-nosed mobsters with guns drawn on each other. All of them on a hair-trigger. Nobody dares to even flinch. The tension becomes unbearable. They all know: One wrong move, one twitch, and the scene will explode in gunfire and unreasonable amounts of blood.

(Spoiler alert: someone always flinches).

It's a cool setup for a film, but a diabolical way to maintain an international order. And yet, somehow, without anyone really meaning to, our geopolitics have been stuck in this dismal stand-off for decades.

A Band Apart/Jersey Flms
If only the current state of play were fiction rather than fact.

Ageing protagonists Russia and the US, facing off with hydrogen bombs and submarine-launched MIRVs. France and the UK, apropos of nothing, threatening to rain nuclear violence down on a Soviet Union that no longer exists.

China, capable of reducing the west coast of the US to ash; India and Pakistan locked in an appalling confrontation of their own. Israel, refusing to admit that it's even in the room, even though everyone knows it is. Into this high-stakes madness blunders North Korea, which is how you know this version of the film might be close to wrapping up.

In military parlance, this setup is known as 'nuclear deterrence'. You might know it by the more honest phrase 'mutually assured destruction'. We are asked to believe that this vast idiocy is actually a way of providing security.

For decades, advocates of backing gently away from this grotesque arrangement have been cast as naïve. We've heard this any number of times from government: we solemnly support nuclear disarmament, just not quite yet.

In the meantime, Australian defence doctrine says that if some government or other looks at us the wrong way, we reserve the right to call on a US nuclear strike that could incinerate millions of people.

That's where the resemblance to the Tarantino bloodbath ends. Scale. It's not just the handful of leaders pointing atomic shotguns at each other who get hit when the inevitable conflagration happens. Dusty reports dating back decades calculated that nuclear strikes on major population centres would kill and injure tens of millions of people.

One cheerful study from 1998 showed that an accidental launch on the US from one single Russian submarine would immediately kill nearly 7 million people. Then there are the cross-border and intergenerational impacts, the crop failures, the radiation sickness, all the other stuff our parents learned in school but since got pushed to the back-brain of popular consciousness.

Nine people hold executive authority over this capability for unthinkable, end-times violence. One of them blows apart dissenters with anti-aircraft guns. One of them posts gifs of himself bodyslamming CNN reporters and is reported to have demanded to know why he couldn't use his nukes. One of them spent her trainwreck election campaign bragging about how she'd launch a nuclear first strike if she felt like it.

Nine people.

What's happening now at the UN is the ultimate in good faith gestures. It is an honest attempt to rewrite the Tarantino script with an ending in which everyone comes out alive.

After decades of waiting around for the tiny minority of nuclear weapons states to voluntarily stand these things down, the rest of the world has finally called bullshit. And for all its flaws, this is one of the things the UN is really good at: now we have nearly 130 states of like-mind, negotiating a new international treaty to declare these barbaric devices illegal.

What does this look like in practice?

Picture something that looks like a very large university auditorium, occupied by Ambassadors and their delegates lined up in alphabetical order, with civil society groups occupying the back two rows and a secretariat down the front running the show. Proceedings are simulcast in six languages. Hard stuff gets thrown to breakout groups in other rooms, and despite the fact that this is not strictly a consensus-based process, there have been no votes, at least not yet. Day by day, a legally binding treaty emerges.

Here's the bit that matters:

1. Each State Party undertakes never under any circumstances to:

(a) Develop, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and

...

(d) Use nuclear weapons;

There's plenty of other stuff in the draft worth haggling over, but it looks like come September some version of this text will be opened for signing. Then it's on. This is how international law is made. This is how cluster bombs and chemical weapons were banned.

And this is when the real work begins: first working on 'nuclear umbrella' states like Australia and members of NATO, pushing back on the private sector institutions that finance and profit from this industry, and building domestic support for signing on.

Then, the harder stuff: the nuclear weapons states themselves. Remember, they're locked in that ridiculous Tarantino stand-off and nobody wants to be the first to lower the shotgun. But if someone does, it changes the game.

Here's one cheerful thought: the UK's likely next Prime Minister is a long-term nuclear disarmament campaigner. Just saying.

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The hardest part is allowing ourselves to believe that we can do better than live under the permanent subliminal risk of these apocalyptic weapons being used. Right now, a document is being finalised that makes that belief concrete, that hundreds of millions of people will shortly be able to sign up to.

Yes, it is a long way between declaring something illegal and physically de-alerting it, disarming it, dismantling it. Especially when you get a wild card like North Korea: surrounded on all sides and determined to ratchet up the explosive rhetoric. But these are the times when careful diplomacy and gestures of goodwill by established nuclear weapons states can do the most good.

You'd want to be careful before drawing too many parallels, but the reason the Iranian nuclear program has faded from the headlines is in part due to years of dialogue and deal-making where brinkmanship had failed.

Imagine the impact -- and the negotiating leverage -- if the nuclear weapons states were able to show that they were seriously engaging with standing down their own weapons.

What's happening now at the UN is the ultimate in good faith gestures. It is an honest attempt to rewrite the Tarantino script with an ending in which everyone comes out alive. The alternative is unreasonable amounts of blood.

Let's not go there.

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